Jasmin Lefers grew up with inspiring cooks and although she didn’t initially strike out on the cooking path, she is now one of those lucky people who get to embrace their passion with their jobs. At present she is working with the staff at Armadale’s newest wine bar, Wine 1160, but generally Jasmin’s working life is a mixed bag of catering for weddings, festivals, exhibitions and corporate events, to name a few. Variety is certainly the spice of life.
Where were you before Wine 1160?
I work for myself. I do a lot of bulk catering for festivals. We do mass food. It’s hard and heavy work for a set period of time. I also do some freelance catering. I don’t have any set style or any particular work that I adhere to. I prefer to change it up and do a lot of interesting things; big jobs and small jobs. I like that it’s diverse and that I get to do a whole lot of different things and get exposed to different things.
Have you always been freelance? You would have done some training?
No. I’m self-taught. Mum says I made my first banana cake when I was five so obviously I loved cooking. My background is Dutch and Hungarian. Both my grandmothers were amazing cooks and I learned a lot form them. I was the only one allowed my nagymama, my Hungarian grandmother’s kitchen. She had three daughters and she didn’t let anyone else into her kitchen. I learned a lot about spices and flavours, especially. When I was growing up people in Australia didn’t eat very interesting or tasty food. Now we are incredibly lucky and we can get anything any time. It’s beautiful and it’s fresh. Back in the day my family was a bit of an anomaly in that we had all those beautiful flavours and freshness that we got to play with.
I actually started doing Science. I have an Arts degree and a Science degree and I’ve never used either of those. I started cooking up at the snow. I moved to the snow for a while and I ended up doing some cooking gigs up there for big school groups and I thought it was really easy for me and it was really good money and so I did that a little bit on the side and then from that I had a small warehouse space and a coffee cart and also a very small coffee shop in Prahran. Then I did one during the day out of a bar in St Kilda. I also did catering for bars who had minimal space and facilities so we would cook off site and I would teach the staff and then they would reheat to order. I’ve done quite a lot of work at festivals doing band stuff. It has just kind of rolled along.
It’s the same with this job. Initially I was here for two weeks to train up the staff but then I just found that things weren’t at the level they needed to be to match the wines and the personality of the place.
So that’s how I’ve ended up at this point. I think I’ve been doing it for 15 years now but it has all been different and diverse. It’s great.
It’s interesting here at Wine 1160 because they’re not matching wine to food, but food to wine.
I came in quite late and they had already developed everything so my job when I first got here was to spend a week showing the staff how to plate up and that was it.
So someone had already come up with the concept of the menu?
My understanding is that the guy who does all the amazing wine, Josh (Elias), came up with the food concepts to match the wine they wanted to do by the glass and then they had a consultant come in and develop recipes to these ideas Josh had come up with. So it was done in an extremely different way to any other place I’ve been involved in
It must be hard to inherit someone else’s ideas.
Incredibly. To be honest, it was a big challenge for me to come in and understand what they’d done and then make the recipes and find that they weren’t quite finished. I readjusted and fixed stuff. We developed and refined a lot of the things that were here and then I added in the salmon pot, the terrine and a couple of other things we adjusted it as we went along. We did a lot of tastings with these guys to make sure that what we were putting out with the wines did translate well. It was pretty challenging to come in and get my head around that and get the kitchen up and running within a very short period of time. Within a week they wanted to be up and going. Everyone worked really hard to get it to the point where we could open and be proud of what we were showcasing to people. I think we’ve got better and better. We’re at a point now where I think it’s good.
Will you stay on?
I’ll be involved. I’m training staff to take over my role. Now that we’re happy with the food, we want to keep it like that. It’s an amazing opportunity to be involved in something like this, a new kitchen. The menu will change seasonally and to match the changing wines. It’s a beautiful opportunity for someone to get involved. I’ll be here for as long as I’m needed. I actually have had a three to five month holiday overseas booked for a long time. I’ll keep in touch and make sure they’re ok and I’ll touch base when I get back and see where they’re at.
It’s lovely seeing so many local wines. Have you been able to use local ingredients as well?
Absolutely. The pork and the chicken are free range and we use local cheeses. We try and stay as local as we can. I try as much as I can within my budget to use Australian organic ingredients, such as the Australian rye flour because we make our own rye bread to go with the potted salmon. With the next incarnation of the menu I think we’ll try to go further again with trying to be a little more unique in our ingredients. When you first open a business, it’s all a bit hectic. There’s a lot going on.
You’ve been cooking for a while now, although this is a slightly different environment, do you get stressed in the kitchen?
I think I’m pretty level. If I’m feeling a little bit under pressure, I’ll time out and go for a walk for five minutes. I have no respect for people who yell and scream and carry on. It doesn’t actually achieve anything in the kitchen. You’d have to do something pretty bad to get me to crack.
I think it’s a different culture in kitchens now. People have realised that it’s not acceptable to yell at other people. Communication is really important. Communication between the kitchen and the floor staff is imperative. You’re not going to get stressed if they know how many portions you have and you relay it clearly to them before service and you update them as you go along, then things run smoothly.
Where do you get your inspiration for your own menus?
I like to get feedback from the people I’m working with, so if I’m doing a wedding, I’ll talk to the about their background what they want to see visually as well as taste-wise. My favourite thing to do because my partner is an artist, is to match my food to his art. He’s a painter and when he does exhibitions, I like making the food to go with that. He does a lot of geometrics, so very clean lines and structures. It’s beautiful. It’s great to match food to go with that.
I’ve done lightboxes, so highlighting the food from underneath. If it’s a corporate gig, I might work with their logo. It’s really interesting and a bit different. Nothing is set, I can workshop it and make it unique.
There must be a real freedom in that.
It’s a choice you make when you work for yourself. Someone else would probably have a steady, safe income, whereas when you work for yourself, you become the accountant, marketer, everything.
So when you go on your overseas trip, will there be food involved?
The reason we are going is because we have a wedding to go to in Greece. The first thing I looked up was when the local market is. We arrive on Tuesday night and the market is on Wednesday morning. The place we’re staying in has an outside barbecue area and a full kitchen. Perfect.
Any holiday I go on, I like to go to the local supermarkets and markets. I like eating street food. When I went to Sri Lanka on a recent trip I had an amazing time. I travelled by myself and met my partner afterwards. He went surfing and I met a lot of locals and did lots of cooking with them in their homes.
How amazing that you started on a completely different career path but you’re now one of those people who is embracing your passion; living and earning money from it.
I would hate to do something every day that I didn’t want to do in a place that I didn’t want to be. It would be an awful way to spend the bulk of your time. I don’t want or need a lot of money. If I wanted to do that I would sacrifice certain ideas I have for my way of existing. The quality of my life is what’s important. For me, that’s everything. I’m not in the kitchen 90 hours like other chefs. That’s what’s really hard about being a chef. Mentally and physically that’s a lot of pressure for a person. I think that’s why I’m ok. I just choose not to do that.
1160 High Street, Armadale